When will crime stop paying?
When education becomes the new currency, and prison becomes a 21st-century hub for learning and rehabilitation.
Working in the women’s prison on a weekly basis, I am more convinced than ever that education is the solution to New Zealand’s amplifying crime rates. Why? Quite simply because it opens up the possibility of a new life and a new source of income to replace the illegal one that has led to their incarceration in the first place.
What’s even more surprising is that there is a willingness and an appetite to engage and support in learning amongst the incarcerated. This is despite the fact that education for many recidivist offenders has been deemed unnecessary, irrelevant or undervalued in the past and certainly not something encouraged by the friends and whanau they have associated with.
Contrary to the opinion of many academics and public servants, I am not at all convinced that the solution to reducing our prison population and crime rates is to target early childhood development to prevent a life of crime from ever taking hold.
How can this be a viable solution when only a few of our most marginalised children are ever exposed to early childhood centres and primary schools? They don’t experience the same world that you, I and our families experience, they have a very different normal that we all need to get our heads around if we truly want change.
Small children, as young as three, are joining in on the criminal activities of their siblings and whanau. It is expected, encouraged and it is part of their ‘normal’ lifestyle just as a trip to prison is. Prison doesn’t carry any stigma for them; it is more like a rite of passage that has been travelled by generations of their whanau.
Therefore, if these children are born into a life that will more likely steer them towards incarceration rather than graduation, why aren’t we making better use of these periods of incarceration to get real change?
It’s high time we tried something different, to bring about a different outcome.
I vote for the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff
I vote for redefining jails as "learning hubs". Imagine if jail became the place that removed offenders from their ‘normal’ lifestyles - full of violence, addiction and crime - and inserted them an environment that put rehabilitation and education at the core of its reason for being and its focus.
Each offender would have a non-negotiable educational pathway mapped out for them at the very beginning of their sentence with a suitably qualified advisor who would help them to identify their strengths, their passions and any skill gaps that were surfacing in the job market.
All of a sudden, the culture of hopelessness that comes from being detained with nothing to do shifts to become one that begins to generate some degree of hope and optimism for the future.
An under leveraged labour force in the making
New Zealand currently has around 40,000 people sitting within the Corrections system with varying degrees of resilience and skills from their former life. Imagine if their focus was now tuned in to an education and training focus that involved areas that held some interest for them in developing further.
Accepting that there is a percentage of the incarcerated population that will never make this shift, currently estimated to be only 7%, this would mean we suddenly had a critical mass of 37,000 people moving in a direction that could create an entirely different set of outcomes for that individual, their whanau and the community.
Support from within
Enabling champions for learning to emerge from within the prison population would make the model even more powerful and enduring.
The more literate teamed up to support those who are not. The natural leaders and advancers equipped with leadership training as part of their education pathway to help encourage and maintain a culture of learning. New inmates, particularly the younger ones, buddied up with rehabilitation role models rather than letting the law of the jungle play out through violence and gang affiliations that happens today.
Imagine if we could transform today’s prisons from what many pundits claim are just Universities of Crime into a learning platform that could produce a cohort of graduates that were ready, willing and able to begin a legal life.
Playing Catch up while incarcerated
Incarceration enables offenders to catch up on a lifetime of learning that they may have never been exposed to growing up and would be unlikely to ever do so unless they were removed from their existing connections and environment.
Let’s work with education providers to get a more extensive offering of closed-loop learning installed behind the wire, i.e. diverse and relevant learning that doesn’t require access to the internet. Surely in this day and age, that’s not inconceivable?
We could lead the world in this space
RAW’s work with over 80 female recidivist offenders on the inside over the last two months has shown us that there is a real appetite for learning and for making permanent changes to their old way of life. What has held them back is a lack of ability and the support to get their first foothold.
Today we are working on a small pilot in the Auckland women’s prison (called Leading from Within) that is looking to expand the learning pathways currently available for inmates. It equips, encourages collaboration and enables the women to lead and engage their peers, and themselves, on a journey to a legal life.
We have everything to gain
Through education, we have the opportunity to generate hope amongst a growing demographic where an underlying hopelessness exists. The only thing holding us back is an appetite for change and a culture that supports experimentation and action. Is there anything that we really have to lose by re-engineering our prison system into a learning hub for a better and legal life?
We have a system that doesn’t work at the moment, so do we care enough to do something about it or do we leave it to run as it is?
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To arrange an interview with Annah, please contact Tanya Smith on 027 512 5232 or Tanya@strettonclothing.co.nz.